A Tally of Green Jobs

Source: JOHN M. BRODER, NEW YORK TIMES • Posted: Friday, March 23, 2012

Tempered expectations: 3.1 million green jobs existed in 2010, the government says.

Bureau of Labor StatisticsTempered expectations: 3.1 million green jobs existed in 2010, the government says.

For the first time, the federal government on Thursday released an estimate of the number of so-called green jobs in the United States economy, saying that 3.1 million people are employed in the production of goods and services that benefit the environment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a unit of the Labor Department, spent more than a year compiling its report, which found that green goods and services accounted for 2.4 percent of total United States employment in 2010. The study, based on a survey of employers and a relatively broad definition of the term ”green,” will provide a baseline against which future job growth or decline can be measured.

The definition and value of green jobs have been intensely debated for the last several years, as President Obama promised to create five million new environmentally friendly jobs. The administration has devoted tens of billions of dollars of federal stimulus money to projects intended to reduce energy use, clean up the environment and generate employment during the deep recession.

Republicans charge that the programs have largely been boondoggles, steering money to favored industries and companies while providing very few new jobs. They point to a number of companies, like the solar panel maker Solyndra, that defaulted on loans, laid off workers or otherwise failed to live up to their promises.

The bureau’s report will not resolve these conflicts, as it provides a snapshot of green employment for only one year, 2010, and its definition of green jobs – “jobs in businesses that produce goods and provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources” – is broad enough to invite some controversy.

That includes the manufacture of energy-efficient appliances, batteries and wind turbines, workers at nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams, municipal bus drivers and trash collectors, and 65,050 workers in natural resources and mining, presumably those involved in cleaning up around oil rigs and coal mines.

The bulk of jobs – 2.3 million of the 3.1 million total – are in the private sector, with the greatest numbers in manufacturing, construction, transportation and waste services. The public sector had 860,000 green jobs in 2010, accounting for about 4 percent of public sector employment. Local government provided more than half of the public sector jobs, with the biggest sector being transportation and warehousing, including operators of mass transit systems.

The numbers track fairly closely a study released last summer by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, which calculated that 2.7 million Americans are employed in what it called the clean economy. Brookings found that clean industries employed more workers than the fossil fuels or bioscience industries do, but fewer than exist in information technology.

Mark Muro, a principal author of the Brookings study, said Thursday that the Bureau of Labor Statistics report provided firm numbers to a sector of the economy that until now has been poorly defined.

“The B.L.S. data does not include a sense of growth in the sector, but it provides a useful snapshot and reaffirms that this is a modest-sized, heavily manufacturing-oriented set of activities that can be measured,” Mr. Muro said.

He said the numbers would probably provide ammunition for both sides in the green jobs debate as well as a useful reality check against expectations and promises that, in retrospect, now appear to have been exaggerated and unrealistic.

California had the highest number of green jobs, 338,400, representing 2.3 percent of the state’s total employment. New York was next with 248,500, or 3 percent of total employment.

Vermont had the highest percentage of environmentally friendly jobs, at 4.4 percent. The District of Columbia was second, at 3.9 percent.